Tamahka Trails Golf Club gives visitors a different taste of Louisiana golf

By Steve Habel, Contributor

MARKSVILLE, La. - One of the first things you will notice about the Tamahka Trails Golf Club at the Paragon Casino Resort are the hills, features that are seemingly out of place in central Louisiana. As part of the state's Audubon Golf Trail, this golf course offers a different taste of the Pelican State, and that is a good thing.

Tamahka Trails Golf Club - 7
Tamahka Trails' No. 7 is a tough dogleg-right par 4 that requires a drive over bunkers.
Tamahka Trails Golf Club - 7Tamahka Trails Golf Club - 11Tamahka Trails Golf Club
If you go

And then there is the sand, enough to easily fill a large beachfront but instead employed here as examples of places not to direct shots on this par-72, 7,019-yard Steve Smyers design.

If you didn't know Tamahka Trails was part of the casino resort complex, you could easily drive right past it, thinking the sprawling, single-level clubhouse was a new-age plantation house fronting a sweet potato farm and a crawfish field that encompasses the rest of the region's land. But once you get on the other side of the clubhouse, the course opens up to reveal a track that will challenge even the best golfer, thanks to a combination of holes that force players to shrug off their victories or defeats in the gambling halls and get focused on their games.

Anything else could spell disaster at Tamahka Trails, and that is just the way Matt Goldsmith, director of golf, likes it.

"The best thing about our course is that it is fair," Goldsmith said. "It is challenging and it is entertaining because you get a little right-to-left and left-to-right and the terrain is hilly, which is unlike a lot of Louisiana golf courses. I like it, too, because you get some blind shots that you don't often get down here."

Smyers coupled his "new-school" design with a passionate appreciation of Scotland's legendary courses to create a course that gets high marks at every turn. Its numerous and often massive bunkers evoke a lunar landscape and always require strategy.

The course opened for play June 13, 2000, almost six years after the casino. Recently, Tamahka Trails has taken to adding members - they signed up 60 last year from the surrounding area with the "whopping" price of $1,500 annually (with no initiation fee, unlimited play and no charge for golf carts).

That drive met their expectations, but Tamahka Trails was the least crowded of the five tracks we recently played as part of our tour of casino-area golf courses. According to Goldsmith, the course has averaged between 12,800 to 24,000 rounds a year and is looking to accommodate between 15,000 and 17,000 golfers annually.

"What's great about Tamahka Trails is that there are no houses around, and you have the feeling of seclusion," Goldsmith said. "That is something that you don't have in a lot of golf courses, and we pride ourselves on making this the best golf value for the money for our players."

Your round begins with a bang with a 581-yard, downhill par 5 that requires a precise shot to avoid a set of five bunkers on the right side of the landing area. Two long par 4s follow, and you'll have to deal with a 213-yard par 3 and a 555-yard bunker-laden par 5 before finding your way to the seventh hole.

The seventh is a tough dogleg-right par 4 that asks you to hit a drive to a target over bunkers that line the right side and force you to hit a 287-yard shot to clear the danger. The green, which is on the other side of a creek, is protected by the low-hanging branch of a tree that fronts the putting surface, making the seventh worth the bite of the alligator after which the course is named.

"The tee shot on number seven challenges your placement because of the dogleg," Goldsmith said. "You can try to lay up short, but then you have a long approach shot to a tough green. You have to get past the trees down the right side. (Right-handed) draw players are challenged because the farther left you are, the farther you are away from home. And then the overhanging limb is still there waiting for you."

You can get back in the groove on the eighth hole, a 317-yard par 4 that is drivable if you can carry your tee ball over the bunker that fronts the green. The front side ends with a 484-yard par 4 with a putting surface surrounded by three deep and punitive bunkers.

No. 10 is a 571-yard par 5 that brings a series of five bunkers into play if you want to try to cut the left corner and try for the green in two. If you are feeling good about yourself after cutting a stroke off your score on the backside opener, brace yourself for one of the toughest par 3s around.

The innocent-looking 145-yard 11th hole can cause fits as short tee shots will either find the water (it is all carry from tee to green) and those that are long will find the deep collection area behind the putting surface. The green slopes from right to left and back to front, and if the pin is in the front - as it was the day we played - a deep sand bunker comes into play. If you find the sand and the pin is up, you have the toughest shot on the course to look forward to, so don't flirt with the hole location if it is up there.

No. 12 .is an uphill par 4 followed by the relatively benign par-5 13th (reachable at 484 yards, but better played as an easy three-shot hole) and the downhill 349-yard, par-4 14th. No. 15 is a 199-yard, uphill par 3 with a false front to the green, and the 16th features a semi-blind second shot around a corner and uphill to the putting surface.

The two finishing holes at Tamahka Trails are among the course's best. No. 17 rewards shots that are just short - your ball can run onto the green, but from there it is easy to three putt if you are not close to the hole.

The 18th is a 435-yard, uphill par 4 that ends with a green that slopes from back to front and will accept run-up shots. That is if you can get your ball in the narrow opening that fronts the green on both sides.

Tamahka Trails Golf Club: The verdict

The golf course carries a rating of 74.4 and a slope of 133, so it is a handful, mainly because there is sand everywhere you look. Afterward you might just pick up the scent of suntan lotion.

"If there is one thing I think we need to improve on, it's the condition of our bunkers," said Tex Reed, the course's superintendent. "We want to make them a little more accessible in and out."

Getting to Marksville is anything but easy, and if you're venturing to Louisiana just for the gambling - or the food - you will have ample opportunity to pull off IH-10 and have a seat in front of a slot machine or a blackjack dealer.

We passed all the signs for those casinos in Vinton and Lake Charles and Kinder and Lafayette, where we turned north toward Alexandria on IH-49 and drove another 50 miles through beautiful terrain that includes horse ranches, crawfish farms and scads of yam and corn fields.

You have to take several back roads to get to the town of about 6,000 people and the birthplace of former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. It is also home of the Tunica-Biloxi Indian reservation, and offers casino gambling and all that entails, including a burgeoning hotel complex, a new arena built specifically for concerts and boxing matches.

We found the course to be one of the best we have played in Louisiana, so get there as fast as you can. It is a bit off the beaten path, but your trip will be well worth it.

Green fees, including cart fee and range balls, is $49 on weekdays and $59 Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. There are discounts for twilight, senior and junior play, and lessons are available.

Stay and Play

The best stay-and-play option is at the casino's hotel, which is literally just across the street from the course. Call (800) WIN-1-WIN for more information. The resort offers free rounds for golfers who spend some time at the tables or at the machines, so think about that as well.

Eating Out

The casino-resort has five eateries, including The Legends Steakhouse (with exquisite gourmet dishes including the finest steak and freshest seafood prepared to your exact specifications), Big Daddy E's Oyster Bar and Restaurant (where you can choose from crab, shrimp and crawfish or have all three together), the Marketplace Buffet (with an international selection of more than 95 tasty items including succulent prime rib) and the Tamahka Grill.

Steve Habel, Contributor

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